In their line of duty, diplomats are exposed to dangers ranging from slander to expulsion. There is no grievance or compensation mechanism to help them through.
Diplomatic life has never been a bed of roses. Diplomats are exposed to slander, arrest, expulsion, physical attack and even assassination for no reason other than being the accredited representative of a country. We are also not unfamiliar with stories of punishment being meted out to the messenger for merely delivering the message.
The recent expulsion and counter-expulsion by the US and India of their diplomats may be linked in some way to their actions, but often the expulsion is a bolt from the blue. A classic case of expulsion was the ordering out of the Australian High Commissioner in tiny Nauru for claiming the expenditure incurred by the Australians in erecting a lamp outside the high commissioner’s residence as aid to Nauru. Nauru prides itself on never receiving any foreign assistance, and the Australian action was seen as a national insult, even though it is dependent on Australia for its very existence.
The pattern of expulsion of diplomats around the globe reveals that it is often the weaker partner in a bilateral relationship that resorts to expulsion of diplomats to make a point. When a country feels powerless to change the opinion of a foreign country, it feels tempted to use its prerogative to expel diplomats. Such actions can only make matters worse in the bilateral relationship. Eventually, the bilateral relationship is repaired, but the sudden dislocation and adverse publicity affect the diplomats concerned and their families.
One consequence of such expulsions is that those declared persona non grata, even for technical reasons, are unable to get back to those countries. In the case of specialists, the expertise lost is regrettable to both countries.
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In the case of Devyani Khobragade, the expulsion came as a solution rather than as a provocation. A quiet withdrawal of the officer in September last year would have been a better solution than the series of events that rocked bilateral relations. The reciprocal expulsion of the US diplomat, it turns out, was more than deserved, as he had not only conspired to evacuate Indian nationals to the US on a false pretext, but had made no secret of his hatred of India and Indians.
Gossip about the host country, its manners and its leaders is common in diplomatic cocktail circuits, but to put it on social media is to attract adverse comments, and worse, expulsion.
In our own diplomatic service, we have had several instances of quiet transfers and even expulsions in similar circumstances. Since these are not always publicised, statistics are not available. There have been the highly publicised reciprocal expulsions by India and Pakistan at lower levels. Reciprocal expulsions with friendly countries are done most discreetly and sometimes diplomats under orders of transfer are technically expelled to complete the quota.
The Chinese deliberately publicised the expulsion of two of our diplomats from China during the Cultural Revolution. One of them left the foreign service as a result of the trauma, while the other rose to the highest level in the service. Quiet advice by host governments and financial irregularities have brought back diplomats with little or no publicity.
They will only figure in whispers in South Block corridors. If there is any truth in the reports that the American ire was more against India than against Khobragade, the tragedy of her treatment and expulsion become all the more sad. The bilateral relationship will recover, while she will be deprived of the opportunity to live in the US with her husband and children even after retirement. The present sympathy and support extended to her by the government will diminish and she will have to resolve her problems herself.
Nobody senior from the ministry of external affairs showed up at the airport to receive her. She must have also been advised not to speak to the media to avoid contradictory pieces of information coming out.
The distinction sought to be made between official and private activities with regard to consular immunity is patently unfair. A diplomat lives abroad simply because she is assigned there and her life cannot be divided into private and public. Immunity and compensation should cover all activities, regardless of the venue and nature of the event involved.
Lack of public sympathy for diplomats, who are seen as privileged and spoiled, is universal. Even those who enjoy multiple supporting staff at public expense in India sneer at one domestic assistant that diplomats are permitted. Drivers and cars are provided only to the heads and posts abroad, while civil servants in India take such facilities for granted even at junior levels. Diplomats with no support systems abroad should be treated with the same concern as soldiers in the frontline.
India has had its share of martyr diplomats, some murdered, some brutally attacked, some insulted and expelled and some quietly whisked away. India has reacted differently to different cases without a formula to nurse the survivors back to normalcy or to ensure that their careers are not affected adversely.
There is no grievance mechanism to deal with the trauma or to compensate the diplomats for their pain and suffering. Each finds her own way to contend with problems arising out of armed attacks or expulsions. No record is available in the public domain of the concessions or compensation given to the affected members of the service. Such information may be of some comfort for those who face danger in the line of duty.
The time has come to ensure that we reduce the number of diplomatic martyrs and have a formula to treat those affected with sympathy and magnanimity.
The writer,a former ambassador and governor for India of the IAEA,is executive vice-chairman,Kerala State Higher Education Council.